Adventures: Unearthing the Okanagan

Columnist Ursula Maxwell-Lewis explores the bounty and beauty of Canada's only desert.

The spotted lake at Osoyoos.

Osoyoos, BC: Deserts have a mystic quality – particularly in this land linked more closely internationally with ice hockey, blizzards, and evergreens.

Squinting around the sun-drenched Nk’Mip vineyards, 18-hole Canyon Desert Golf Course, Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, and Spirit Ridge Resort to the lake beyond, I marvel at how Canada’s only desert has flourished under the Okanagan First Nation people, the wise stewardship of Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie, his band council, and their intelligent choice of business partners.

Chief Louie’s mantra, “Go to school, get a job, or get out!” has clearly paid  off.

Despite 32 degree Celsius June temperatures, golfers dodge sagebrush, kids splash in the pool, impressive local art highlights the 350-seat conference centre – and I adjourn to the cool-in-every-sense Talon’s Restaurant.

Top Chef Canada’s Executive Chef Jamie Hertz has tangy Watermelon Gazpacho topped with Avocado Cream, and possibly the best potato-crusted Pacific halibut I’ve yet to enjoy on the menu. Honestly, that’s not PR, nor is the observation influenced by the perfectly matched wine selection recommended by a sommelier with an appealing sense of humour who clearly knows his wines.

From my base at the pueblo-style Spirit Ridge Resort, I spend the next three days roaming this Southern Okanagan extension of the Sonoran Desert. A wide assortment of rare plants, birds and wildlife, including painted turtles, pygmy horned toads and endangered Western rattlesnakes, are respected and protected here. In fact, the rattlers are captured, tagged, and briefly hosted at a ”rattlesnake hotel” before being released again. No wonder naturalists, families, sun seekers, and wine aficionados flock to this region aptly nicknamed the Napa of the North. Byron, a retired accountant and respected naturalist, owns Great Horned Owl Eco-Tours. He’ll tailor tours to particular interests, or you can join him for one of his varied small group day tours (includes a picnic lunch), as we did.

His respect for wildlife (and us) began with a few basic survival techniques.

[Naturalist Greg Byron, left. Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo]

I learn that if I “stand tall and yell” I can scare off a black bear (probably).

“They swim fast and are eating machines,” our soft-spoken guide enlightens us.

If the yelling thing doesn’t work out, I gather I’m to throw him some food (the bear, not Greg), drop to the ground, and assume the fetal position. No mention of fervent prayer, but a close relationship with the Patron Saint of Travellers Facing Bears would undoubtedly be a connection worth having. At that point, it would be every man for himself anyway. Reluctantly, I sign the company release form, and check my backpack for yummy bear treats.

Among our stops was Spotted Lake. At first glance it looks polluted, but not so. Water surfacing over various underground minerals creates the unique circles. Known as a medicine lake by the Okanagan Nation, it contains record quantities of calcium, magnesium sulphate and sodium sulphates. There is a possibility a national park may be created around it to protect the fragile ecosystem.

Since the bear lecture turned out (thankfully) to be a formality, we settled for getting acquainted with a placid herd of Highland cattle at Covert Farms – a second-generation 700-acre organic spread basically flanking the McIntyre Bluffs cliffs.

Cruising around in a red 1952 Mercury pick-up, Chef Derek Uhlemann, our host, handed out containers for harvesting our own sweet organic strawberries. The 100-mile diet is a reality here – as demonstrated by our grilled chicken organic country fare supper. Local wines are a given, of course, in the Okanagan, and this was no exception.

I now know my Sagebrush from my Antelope Brush (I think) plus I developed an admiration for natural backdrops such as Wild Blue Flax. My botany eduction far from being over, I decide to concentrate on the abundant Okanagan grapes without wrath harvested during the 200 sunny days long the Okanagan and Similkameen benches.

Reluctantly, after a final breakfast stop with locals at the popular JoJo’s Cafe in downtown Osoyoos, just blocks from Gyro Beach, my mini-holiday draws to a close.

The good news is – an easy four-hour road-trip can land me back here. Undiscovered wineries and bounty beckons. The best of summer is yet to be. Cheers!

When you go: check at for comprehensive trip-planning advice about the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys.

– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a British Columbia-based writer and photographer. She is also the founding editor/publisher of the Cloverdale Reporter.

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